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“They Are Expendable”: Who’s Paying to Reopen Business?

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

In late March, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) made a bold, revealing, statement on Fox’s “Tucker Carlson Tonight” in support of Pres. Trump’s call for businesses to reopen and relaunch the national economic recovery. “Let’s get back to living,” Patrick said. “Let’s be smart about it. And those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves, but don’t sacrifice the country.”

This Republican stalwart went on, declaring, “I’m not living in fear of Covid-19. What I’m living in fear of is what’s happening to this country.” He then added:

And you know, Tucker, no one reached out to me and said, “As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren? … And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.”

He concluded with the proper self-conceit, noting “that doesn’t make me noble or brave or anything like that. I just think there are lots of grandparents out there in this country like me … what we all care about and what we love more than anything are those children.”

Shocked by the self-serving statement, NY Gov. Mario Cuomo, tweeted, “My mother is not expendable. Your mother is not expendable. We will not put a dollar figure on human life. We can have a public health strategy that is consistent with an economic one. No one should be talking about social darwinism for the sake of the stock market.”

In early May, Ken Turnage II, an Antioch, CA, city council member, shocked the suburban Oakland community when he wrote on Facebook:

the World has been introduced to a new phrase Herd Immunity which is a good one. In my opinion we need to adapt a Herd Mentality. A herd gathers it ranks, it allows the sick, the old, the injured to meet its natural course in nature.

He singled out homeless people, claiming that the virus would “fix what is a significant burden on our society and resources that can be used.” Facing wide-spread criticism, he pulled his Facebook post. Turnage refused the mayor’s request to resign and the Antioch City Council voted unanimously to oust him from his post during a special virtual meeting.

The thinking of Patrick and Turnage reflects that of Sec. of Commerce Wilbur Ross who, in January, accepted coronavirus has a silver lining. “On top of all the other things, because you had SARS, you had the African Swine virus there, now you have this,” Ross said. “It’s another risk factor that people need to take into account. So, I think it will help accelerate the return of jobs to North America, some to the U.S., probably some to Mexico as well.”

This thinking was most recently articulated, on May 5th, by former NJ Gov. Chris Christie (R) told CBS TV viewers, “there are going to be deaths no matter what.” He qualified his statement, “The American people have gone through significant death before … We’ve gone through it in World War I, we’ve gone through it in World War II. We have gone through it and we’ve survived it. We sacrificed those lives.” He concluded, “We decided to make that sacrifice because what we were standing up for was the American way of life,” he said.

This belief is likely shared by likely by others Republicans, Trump supporters and White House insiders who accept the tradeoff of mass illnesses and deaths in order to restart the economy. Georgia has led the charge, but a dozen or so other states are quickly following. Many may worry that the current, if limited, safeguards will be sidestepped as more states open for business leading to the possible spread of coronavirus – and a possible second wave of infection.

Sadly, one can image someone – Trump?, Kushner? – calculating the trade-off between business and the human cost, and saying, “they are expendable.”

***

As of May 1st, more than 60,000 Americans had died of coronavirus.

Sadly, the sentiments shared by Patrick and Turnage aging became unstated national policy. Reports of illness and deaths of patients/residents of senior-care centers are disturbing, especially the numerous incidents of people dying without the presence of family or loved ones. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns, “The risk for serious disease and death in COVID-19 cases among persons in the United States increases with age.” A CDC analysis looked at 44 Corvis-19 deaths from February 12th through March 16th and found that 80 percent of people were 65 and older; 34 percent of deaths were among those aged 85 older, 46 percent were among those aged 65 to 84 years, and 20 percent of the deaths were among those between 20 and 64 years. A report on April 20th estimates “at least 8,000 people nationwide have died from COVID-19 in nursing homes.”

Race/ethnicity is a second variable in assessing expendability. As of April 30th, “Black Americans” were 2.3 times higher in terms of mortality rate than the rate for Latinos, 2.4 times higher than Asians and 2.6 times higher for Whites. AMP Research Labs claims that the while the mortality rate per 100,000 for all American residents at 19.6, it was 34.7 for Blacks, 14.9 for Latino, 14.6 for Asian and 3.1 per Whites. The CDC points out, the mortality rate is influenced in large part by preexisting conditions that are more common — and deadly! — in African-American and poor communities. Preexisting conditions such as chronic lung disease, diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease, and obesity contribute to shorter life expectancy and increased susceptibility to Corvid-19.

A third factor involved in the level of Covid-19 infection rate concerns income or class. Looking at New York City, The Intercept offered a revealing insight in class by comparing five ZIP-code areas with the highest and lowest coronavirus levels. And no one should be surprised by its findings:

The five ZIP codes with the highest rates of positive tests for the coronavirus — in Corona, Cambria Heights, East Elmhurst, Queens Village, and Jackson Heights — have an average per capita income of $26,708, while residents in the five with the lowest rates — in Lower Manhattan, Tribeca, Battery Park City, and the east side of Midtown — had an average income of $118,166 … .

Clearly, for all the glad tidings and even special Air Force flyovers, those most exposed to the coronavirus are the most essential, the most expendable. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 9,000 health-care workers have tested positive for Covid-19 in April and more than 60 nurses have died.

The National Nurses United organized a demonstration on April 21st in front of the White House. Deborah Burger, the union’s president, said that nurses are “tired of being treated as if we are expendable.” She added, “If we are killed in this pandemic, there won’t be anybody to take care of the rest of the sick people that are going to come.”

The Trump administration has undertaken two critical steps in ending the strongest efforts to contain the coronavirus. One involves permitting the “Stay at Home” guidelines to expire, replaced by a series of state, local and business decisions. The second, Trump invoked the Defense Production Act and ordered meat-processing plants to continue operating, declaring them critical infrastructure. His order stated: “Such closures threaten the continued functioning of the national meat and poultry supply chain, undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency.” It went on, “Given the high volume of meat and poultry processed by many facilities, any unnecessary closures can quickly have a large effect on the food supply chain.”

The order failed to mention that 20 meatpacking and processing workers have died, and at least 6,500 have been affected from coronavirus. Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), angrily declared, the workers “are not expendable.” Edgar Fields, president of Southeast Council, expressed his outrage after the Tyson poultry plant in Camilla, GA, lost its third union member. “Let me be clear, RWDSU members are not expendable, they are critical to putting food on America’s dinner tables, and above all else, they are hard-working people who didn’t sign up to die on the front lines of a pandemic in this country, and they shouldn’t be dying needlessly. The truth is our members have been terrified to go to work for weeks.”

The U.S. food industry employs about 2.7 million farmworkers most of whom are undocumented. While Trump has not invoked the Defense Production Act to cover farmworkers, they may be the next to get the designation. The U.S. Departments of State and Homeland Security have loosened visa restrictions for H-2A workers primarily to plant and harvest fruits and vegetables. In states from Florida to Washington, there are reports of increased illness and deaths among farmworkers.

Among still other expendable “essential” workers are the legion of retail, warehouse and gig workers that are keeping the economy running. At the end of March, Chris Smalls, an assistant manager at the JFK8 Amazon Fulfillment Center in Staten Island, walked off the job in protest of poor working conditions. He called for the company to provide workers with personal protective equipment (PPE), health care benefits, paid leave and hazard pay. “This is a cry for help,” Smalls said. His actions led to strong sympathetic media coverage and popular public support.

Amazon suffered a second blow when VICE News published an internal memo in which the company laid out its PR campaign to discredit Smalls. “He’s not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers,” wrote David Zapolsky, Amazon’s General Counsel. This led New York attorney general Letitia James to send a warning to Amazon that it may have violated whistleblower protection laws by firing him.

Smalls action helped fuel May Day demonstrations against Amazon, Instacart, Whole Foods, Target and other outlets in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and other cities. Protesters asked consumers not to cross picket lines or use those companies’ services for the day in solidarity. In addition, nurses protested at more than 130 hospitals in 13 states a lack of PPE and the punishments they endure when they complain.

Susan Caffaro, a San Diego-based Instacart shopper affiliated with the Gig Workers Collective, offered a sober assessment of the situation. “I think in large part, gig workers are viewed as expendable cogs by a lot of these corporations, and I don’t think that their business plans really entailed providing protections for us.”

However, the most expendable are the least essential, those in the local, state and federal jail and prison system. The Prison Policy Institute (PPI) summarizes the system in 2020 accordingly:

The American criminal justice system holds almost 2.3 million people in 1,833 state prisons, 110 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,134 local jails, 218 immigration detention facilities, and 80 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories.

The Marshall Project reports that as of April 29th, at least 14,513 people in prison had tested positive for coronavirus. It notes that the first “known” Corvid-19 death was Anthony Cheek, 49 years old who died at the Lee State Prison, Albany (GA). It estimates that by the end of April, 217 people has died of “coronavirus-related causes.”

But the prison expendables don’t stop with prisoners. “Bro, I know I’m gonna get sick in here, but I’m a soldier,” said a Detroit sheriff’s deputy. “I just hope I’m healthy enough not to die. It’s like we’re expendable. It really messes your mind.”

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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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